If you watch a lot of movies and read a lot about movies, there are few things as satisfying as discovering an unheralded delight; a great film that's existed in the world for some time, but doesn't necessarily enjoy a high profile.
A great film is a great film, but a great film that comes no with expectations at all is a special thing indeed.
I'm describing the experience I had with the 1993 New Zealand movie Jack Be Nimble.
I remember when the film came out, and I remember not bothering to see it. More fool me. But I came to view it recently as part of my role introducing films for TVNZ Heartland, as I did with The Navigator a few weeks ago, and it was a similarly revelatory experience.
Difficult to classify in the best possible way, I'm gonna call it a gothic horror drama. Informed by the works of Brian De Palma, Dario Argento and David Lynch, its own uniquely haunting flavour shines through above all else.
Horror movie guru Kim Newman, quite possibly my all-time favourite film critic, gave it four stars in Empire magazine, describing the "deeply weird melodrama" as a cross between Stephen King and John Irving.
There's a lot of weird, nasty stuff going on in Jack Be Nimble, and I was entranced by all of it. The boldness of the vision is undeniable.
It's difficult to make the argument for a greater focus on genre in New Zealand cinema without sounding like either a heartless number cruncher or a shallow fanboy, but Jack Be Nimble embraces genre in a way that never compromises its artistic ambitions.
Like Vincent Ward's The Navigator, it beautifully combines a resolutely personal vision with bold genre elements. The result is a film as immediately captivating as it is resonant. It's one of the strangest New Zealand films ever made, and dark in a way few get to be. It deserves way more of a cult reputation than it currently enjoys, and feels ripe for rediscovery.
I'm probably over-selling it at this point.
I got in touch with Jack Be Nimble's director and co-writer Garth Maxwell who was nice enough to answer a few questions about the film.
DC: How would you pitch Jack Be Nimble to today's movie goer?
GM: It's a stylised supernatural tale in which the forced separation of two children unleashes a storm of retribution and violence. The girl, Dora, is psychic and grows up as a lonely alcoholic in the suburbs of Auckland's North Shore. The boy, Jack, goes to a hellish farming family with four feral daughters, where he becomes their whipping boy. He dreams of finding his sister, and after various terrible events he makes a crude machine to hypnotise his adoptive barbaric family. Bruno Lawrence plays an older psychic who offers consolation to the troubled Dora, then sex, of course. When the farmer and his wife meet their spectacular ends, Jack flees the farm and is pursued by the four sisters, who all share the baby-doll voice of actress Lucy Sheehan. I wanted the film to be like an opiated dream, off the rails, lush and terrifying. But funny too!
Is it an autobiographical story at all?
No, no-one in my family was psychic or acted like any of these terrible people! But, being a gay kid growing up in suburbia, I had my own strange take on what and where I was, and all that neurosis and anguish bled into what this film became. I also read about a Taranaki farmer who tied his children upside down from the back of the kitchen door and beat the kids' feet with rods. And a gay guy I knew told me he had been whipped with barbed wire. So, it all went into the mix. My idea of New Zealand....
How have your feelings towards the film evolved in the two decades since?
To me the film is a success, even though financially that didn't seem the case - it was pirated from early on in the UK, USA, all the main territories. I think we managed something fierce and original. The energy of the writing was not smoothed out by teams of script editors as happens now, and the actors took it to the level it needed to be working at. It retained its wicked, funny edge - it feels appropriately over the top but still moves you. A couple of years ago I recorded a commentary track with some of the heads of department, and two of the principal cast. That can be heard on the version of the film that is available online for purchase. Sarah Smuts-Kennedy (Dora); Elisabeth Hawthorne (the farmer's wife Bernice); Donny Duncan (director of photography); Ngila Dickson (wardrobe); John Gilbert (editor) and Chris Neal (composer) and I just freely talked as we watched the film and it was wonderful. We were taken back to the period of its making, 1993. Sarah was taking Bert Potter to court for the abuse at Centrepoint and we scheduled around her court days.
I see this as personal story that uses genre elements. To what extent were you thinking about genre when you made it?
I knew that it was all about atmosphere, and suspense. I wanted a number of set pieces, which had a clearly signalled structure, which could proceed in a measured way, heading towards some unspeakable outcome. Those are the sequences which audiences loved, coupled with the appropriate music. I credit Chris Neal's atonal, surging strings with really supporting the film, becoming a big part of its identity and success. Other genre elements, like human hair - and Sarah had this massive black volume of hair which we used in many ways visually, hair was a real theme, like the farmer's daughters hacking their hair off before they do bloody battle at the climax. Grant Major (Production Designer) introduced me to the Symbolists, and Arnold Bocklin, and we studied his paintings for a sense of brooding landscape, like Island of the Dead with those cypresses, which are a very NZ feature too. We wanted it to feel elemental, blood, water, wire, twisted macrocarpas, the sun seen flickering through poplar trees as you drive, but we wanted the film to feel like it wasn't set quite in the present - sometime between the Victorian era, and say the fifties. Wardrobe choices went that way as did choices of cars and props. Keeping the dowdy fairytale aspect tangible.
Which filmmakers or films, if any, influenced you when you made it?
I'd been completely floored by David Lynch's films, his slowing down of time, extending sequences to really make the atmospherics almost overwhelming, suspending the action in music that wouldn't let you go, like the incredible Fire Walk With Me after Twin Peaks. And I'd discovered Dario Argento's Suspiria. Ah god, what twisted bliss. All of this had a real impact on a kid who's idea of fun bedtime reading was Edgar Allen Poe.
I got a real Brian De Palma vibe from the film - are you a fan of his work?
Brian De Palma is the greatest. When we were cutting the film, I kept putting his scores against the action. The first time Chris Neal saw the film, it was with a lot of De Palma's score on it. Inexorably heading towards something bad.
Where did the idea for the steam-powered hypnosis machine come from?
I had always been fascinated by sequences and series, in maths. I was also making little projects that had spinning components. One became a machine which made sparks fly, on a spindle, using light bulbs and batteries and crude brushes, copper wires, motors. This prototype I made when I was about 15, and tried out on my family. It was thrillingly loud and dramatic, grinding away spewing parks and noise, like a homemade strobe lights machine. That's where the one in the film came from but I added steam for extra visual texture. A props maker was operating it from under the table, exhausted I recall.
Are you still in touch with Alexis Arquette?
I last spoke to Alexis a few years ago after the amazing doco Channel Four made about her sex change. Alexis was dealing with a lot, but remained funny and brave about it all. I've now met some of the family, Patricia, Rosanna.
What was it like working with Bruno Lawrence in what would be one of his final film roles?
Bruno understood just how to use his eyes and his voice, his presence, to spook the viewer, while adding a combination of eroticism and implied threat. He was amazing. He was also, probably, already sick during the shoot. I had him smoking cigarettes all the way through the film, which I feel bad about now. But we didn't know and he was happy smoking. I don't think he did much, if any, preparation. He never seemed to know what scene he was about to shoot. That didn't inspire much confidence, but he was wonderful in the part and gave us another fantastic performance to remember him by.
What was the most recent film you saw that inspired a dramatic reaction from you?
Well I fell out of the cinema laughing hysterically after seeing Noah, so I guess that got a reaction. Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac was plain amazing, engaging on all levels, brave and free. My dream would be for a NZ film industry that was capable of that level of sophistication. Not just peddling hobbits. Blue Jasmine I loved. Nicholas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives is astonishing, incredible.
Does New Zealand cinema currently excite you?
I loved Fantail; that will be a hit. I try to see the new Kiwi films at the main Film Festival, which is such a great resource for us all. Sometimes things that people think I'll love just don't work for me. I suppose I want more, more craft, more colour, more sensation, more oddness! But with an adult sensibility. Dish it up, I can take it!
Do you think New Zealand cinema needs to be more genre-focused in general?
Well it would be fantastic if a producer put together a great series of genre films, found the right directors, and then didn't get in the way. Basically I agree. If the tale is urgent, the predicament vivid, the problem clear, then we are already paying attention.
Are you currently based in NZ? What are you working on these days?
I split my time between NZ and Australia. I have been doing television in Australia since about 2005, some great shows, some not. SLiDE was great, so was Crownies. I'm trying to return to filmmaking, as it can be so much more rewarding, but I haven't been able to attract a penny out of the NZ Film Commission since 1998 (When Love Comes). How many proposals they've had from me! I know these things are cyclical, but I am more than ready for the cycle to move round a bit more. I have two projects, one I'm co-writing with the great John Frizzell (A Winter Tan) in Toronto, which has science fiction elements, and the other is a small coastal mystery story for one of our greatest actresses. I love both these ideas, and I'm feeling ready for whatever comes next.
What's the status of Jack Be Nimble's availability to the public?
Jack Be Nimble, with the commentary track, can be bought here for $9.99 - bargain!
* Jack Be Nimble screens on TVNZ Heartland May 23rd at 7.30pm.
Have you seen Jack Be Nimble? Do you think New Zealand cinema needs to be more genre-focused? Comment below.